Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Flowering Shrubs – new varieties & old fashioned favorites.

There's nothing bashful about this deciduous Exbury azalea 'Northern Hi-lights' 
 Photo credit

As soon as the sun shines housework grinds to a halt and gardening comes front and center in my life. Digging takes precedence over dog fur and weeding over washing the floors.

Of course to justify this I need to do something productive outside which surely means planting a few more things! There’s something seductive about the combination of sunshine and flowering shrubs in early spring. I am lured outside to better appreciate the blooms and enjoy any fragrance they might offer. That makes this the perfect time to visit your favorite nursery and gather up a few new plants to herald the start of the gardening season.

Here are a few of my favorite shrubs which offer early spring interest as the garden (and gardener) come alive again.
Pearl like buds open to pure white star
shaped flowers on this deutzia
Photo courtesy Proven Winners

‘Chardonnay Pearls’ deutzia was introduced a few years ago, taking an otherwise ordinary shrub into designer status with its bright golden foliage and sparkling white, fragrant flowers which cover the branches in May. A good mingler for perennial gardens and container design, it stays nice and compact at 2-3’. Should you need to prune it, do so immediately after flowering as it blooms on the previous year’s growth. Hardy in zones 5-8 this is a nice low maintenance shrub for sun or part shade. Blue flowers always look pretty with golden foliage so look to the hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’ as the perfect companion which will provide periwinkle flowers until frost. Or add vertical interest with a group of the deep blue flowered ‘Caradonna’ sage (Salvia) which also sports dark purple stems. 

If only this was 'scratch and sniff'! This 
'Boomerang purple' lilac stays nice and compact
Photo courtesy Proven Winners

‘Boomerang purple’ lilac (Syringa x penda) gives us a powdery mildew resistant, dwarf lilac which re-blooms! There’s nothing quite like the nostalgic fragrance of lilac and this variety promises to become a new favorite. With deadheading in spring it will take a little nap during the summer heat before bouncing back with more flowers in fall. Growing just 4-5’ tall and wide this deserves a place in your spring garden and with multiple bloom times lends itself well to pairing with summer perennials. The low growing fleabane ‘Profusion’ (Erigeron karvinskianus) would be pretty forming a carpet of simple white daisies from which the lilac could rise. These begin to bloom as the first flush of lilacs fade, continuing through the summertime when the lilac is dormant and allowing for a delicate late season combination. Zones 3-7. 

'Snow day surprise' pearl bush shouts 'SPRING!'
Photo courtesy Proven Winners
‘Snow day surprise’ pearl bush (Exochorda) is a stronger, more compact variety of its somewhat ungainly cousin making it more appealing to today’s gardeners and better suited to small spaces. This deciduous shrub forms a mound 3-4’ tall and wide, providing a spectacular display of white flowers in early spring. A tough, low maintenance plant which is hardy in zones 4-8 this old fashioned shrub still has a place in the mixed border. After blooming this doesn’t really contribute a lot to the garden, however, so place it where a neighbor can take over such as barberry ‘Rose glow’ (Berberis) or ‘Coppertina’ ninebark (Physocarpus) both of which will add foliage interest and fall color. Best in full sun but will also take a little shade.
Terracotta tinted buds open to rich golden-orange 
flowers whose intense fragrance will make you
swoon! Exbury azalea 'Golden lights'  
Photo credit -Greer gardens

Exbury azaleas always surprise me. Somehow it doesn’t seem possible that those fat buds could possibly explode into such show stopping rhododendron-like flowers. My favorites are those in bold shades of orange and gold which shine like neon beacons and as for their fragrance – simply put, it is unforgettable. Plant these in large containers, mixed borders or as transition shrubs backing onto wilder areas. The only thing more spectacular than the spring flowers is the scarlet fall color. An outstanding shrub for partial to full sun in zones 5-9. I’m hard pressed to choose a favorite but I do particularly like ‘Golden lights’, one of the Northern Lights series which I used in containers last year. I placed one either side of a cedar archway to provide height then underplanted them with ‘Crystal palace’ geraniums and the bronze foliage of ‘Sweet Caroline’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) for summer. In the landscape I love them next to darker foliage such as that of ‘Black lace’ elderberry (Sambucus ramosa) or in association with lacy Japanese maples. Gorgeous.
'Renaissance' bridal wreath forms a white waterfall 
Photo courtesy Monrovia

‘Renaissance’ bridal wreath (Spiraea x vanhouttei) is a new disease resistant variety of an old favorite. An English garden classic, this arching shrub is smothered in blooms in May forming a billowing froth 5’ tall and wide although it is easy to prune after flowering if you prefer. Beloved of butterflies and flower arrangers this spring favorite shines again in fall when it turns to fiery shades of orange and red. Hardy in zones 3-7 this easy growing shrub thrives in full sun with regular watering. I rarely see this planted in Seattle gardens yet a romantic pairing with blowsy peonies would be so pretty and yield an abundance of spring blooms for the home.

As you reassess your garden in April and May stand back and take a good hard look at the borders. A well designed garden will offer interesting foliage color and texture at this time of year as well as flowers from early blooming perennials. Perhaps there is also room for a flowering shrub or two? (Or three or four).

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